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Cycling through Spaghetti Country

This summer I travelled with my bike from Derby to Kidderminster cycling along some beautiful lanes and canals, stepping off a new train and finishing on an old one.

Beginning at Willington, my route followed the Trent and Mersey Canal, Coventry Canal, Birmingham & Fazeley Canal then Birmingham Main Line Canal before leaving the waterways at Dudley to head west to the Severn Valley (fun fact: when in 1784 the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company merged with the Birmingham Canal Company it became, for 10 years no less, the ‘Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company’).

Towpaths in the East Midlands were very bumpy and not really suitable for cycling. But it was a week day so I didn’t come across many walkers and as long as I went slowly I had a great time and the scenery was idyllic.

On the first night I stayed at the Camping and Caravan Club at Kingsbury, who were very helpful, friendly and good value. The only quirk worth mentioning is that the site is a black hole for phone signal for some reason!

As soon as you cross the border into Birmingham the towpath becomes an excellent cycle path, whilst the boat traffic disappears. What followed was a risk-free urban exploration into the underbelly of the West Midlands. The whole ride through Birmingham was truly remarkable.

Spaghetti Junction

It’s incredible that these canals have survived, in places now literally buried by 200 years of railways, roads, factories, housing and motorways, yet still navigable by narrow boat.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is at Spaghetti Junction.

I was slightly obsessed with the ungodly stylings of motorways as a kid, and so Spaghetti Junction attracted much fascination. On a trip to the West Midlands I successfully nagged my pa to drive us through the it (despite it being slightly out of our way). It was a huge let down, but cycling under it proved to be surprisingly rewarding.

Gravelly Hill, as the maps call the area, has been an important junction for centuries, the meeting point of the Birmingham & Fazeley, Tame Valley, and Grand Union Canals, meaning in times past one could sit at this place and watch boat traffic from the length and breadth of England pass by.

I recently discovered there is a word for such canal rubbernecking. Defined a something between back-seat driving, train-spotting and sunbathing: it’s called ‘Gongoozling’. Honestly!

Today’s traffic thunders overhead while the canals lie empty, but the waters flow remarkably clean and I spotted a Little Egret, Rainbow Trout, Grey Wagtail and followed throughout by an adorable Mallard family.

The cleanest waters flowed in the River Tame which threaded a remarkably wild-looking course beneath the canals, which themselves found their way underneath railway lines and local roads, the motorways on monumental concrete piles high above. It is quite a dystopian place. But if you come with no expectations, quite reassuring too.

Tunnelling through Birmingham

Further into Birmingham some sections are so dark that headlights are needed and there are some very steep ramps up and down: fun once you get the hang of them, but you do need to pay attention, especially when carrying a tent. Once adjusted the ups and downs are lots of fun, becoming something of a platform game.

I stopped off at Birmingham Library, which was overfull with young people trying to revise for A-Levels (adults! We need to fund more study spaces!).

Continuing on beyond the City Centre I had to walk a little while because the queue for Ariana Grande at the Birmingham Arena was strung out along the narrow tow path. There was a jostling with refusenik cycle commuters and joggers, and perhaps inevitably someone ended up in the drink and had to be pulled out.

Into Dudley the canals gasp for air beneath the M5 motorway and I would shortly leave them headed West. J R R Tolkien grew up in Worcestershire and watched this part of the West Midlands become urbanised and industrialised. In the prologue of the Lord of the Rings he laments the loss of this countryside and admits he was likely inspired by it when writing the chapter “the Spoiling of the Shire”. This route brought that to life.

The Severn Valley

The second night I stayed at the wonderful Unicorn Inn, Hampton Loade. Due to the bridge being gated off at Hampton I had to do a long detour to Bridgenorth to get there, but the campsite were unruffled by my request to arrive after midnight. The cheap breakfast, friendly staff and sunshine was very welcome.

I then caught the morning diesel on the Severn Valley Railway to Kidderminster. The Station Master was more than happy to take my bicycle (although the fare was cash only – is that surprising for a steam railway?). And so my trip ended!

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The science of Edinburgh’s gloaming

Last night we had the most gorgeous velvet simmer dim in Leith.

I thought I would dip into the science of twilight because as it turns out, 1st June – 11th July is the gloaming time at 56˚ north!

For most of the year the night is bordered by different depths of twilight. “Astronomical Twilight” is when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon. At such times the presence of the sun is just about visible, but it has little effect, and is often unnoticed as the stars shine clearly. 1st June was the last day of the winter’s “Astronomical Twilight”: we have left this kind of night behind us. It is all lighter from here on out.

The darkest it will get in the coming weeks is something called “nautical twilight”, when the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees *below* the horizon. It is so named because it is just dark enough that one can read the brightest stars for navigation at sea, but if you have a good vantage point you’ll easily be able to see the sun’s glow beneath the horizon, waiting to rise to start the next day.

Either side of “nautical twilight” is the brighter “civil twilight”, bright enough to read by and certainly bright enough to drink and chat by. It’s when the sun has just set or is just about to rise, and is less than 6 degrees below the horizon. This time often barely feels like night at all.

Before us lie the brightest nights of the year. In Edinburgh they fall equally on 18-23th June. On each of these nights the sun is only below the horizon for 6 hours and 24 minutes and often it’s glow will be visible through all these hours. I once sat on the Mound with my sister all twilight, waiting for the first train from Waverley, watching the sun pass under the northern horizon towards the approaching dawn. It’s quite a special thing to witness.

“Dusk” is commonly defined as the darkest point of twilight, when twilight passes into dark night and the sun’s influence is lost. In this sense, it could be said that in our northern summer, since we have no dark night we have no dusk.

Edinburgh’s gloaming month will of course end. On 12th July the Astronomical Twilight will return, bringing back more of the stars, and the first real dusk belonging to the coming Autumn. “True night” will return on 9th August – for just a few minutes – a foreshadowing of its takeover of our sky across the Autumn so that by the winter more than half of our days are pitch black night with shining bright stars (when it’s not raining of course).

So for now stay up late. Sit about in the park. Find a pal and go on a night hike. Watch the dawn at the beach. Savour the light my northern friends!

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Photo of rainbow drawing by Catherine Thackstone, Flickr
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A Coronavirus reading list for UK Climate Activists

Published 13 April, minor updates 15 Apr

This is a reading list about Coronavirus, ecological breakdown, system change and justice. It’s aimed at UK climate but hopefully will be of wider use too.

I’m a slow reader and this all took me about 3hrs to read. If you don’t have this time I’d choose one or two of the longer reads.

Most of these articles do cite their sources so you could use this to inform your own writing and speaking. You could also use them to structure an online reading group!

Bear in mind this is ultra-topical, and I don’t plan to keep it updated.

If you’re looking for more detail about specific climate demands designed for this moment, I’m not aware of any available but would love to hear from you if you know about them. Otherwise expect more in the coming months.

Ric Lander

A short summary

  1. Friends of the Earth Europe summary (FoE Europe)

Great long reads

  1. Impacts on global south, government failure, and links between the ecological crisis and the pandemic (World at 1oC)
  2. A review of past crisis, and what they can tell us about what will happen (The Guardian)
  3. How to beat Coronavirus capitalism with Naomi Klein (Video) (Youtube)
  4. How our economic system makes pandemics more likely (Vox)
  5. What are the short-term environmental impacts? (The Guardian)
  6. Wellbeing, care and solidarity (Oxfam Blogs)

Impacts on fossil fuels

  1. This is the worst crisis ever faced by the oil industry (The Guardian)
  2. Financiers weigh up the future of oil and gas (The Independent)
  3. Oil lobbying during the pandemic (Influence Map)

Impacts on marginalised communities

  1. More people of colour are dying of Coronavirus in the UK (BBC News)
  2. Disabled people’s rights (Red Pepper)
  3. Rise in domestic abuse (The Guardian)
  4. Police repression and people of colour (The Independent)

Manifestos for recovery

  1. Just Recovery (350.org)
  2. Applying justice thinking to the Pandemic (Reuters Foundation)
  3. Protect people of colour (Charity So White)
  4. Public health (MedAct)
  5. Protect migrants (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants)
  6. Green New Deal UK (GNDUK)

Actions to support

  1. Covid 19 mutual aid network (Covid 19 Mutual Aid)
  2. Debt cancellation (Jubilee Debt Campaign)
  3. Don’t bailout aviation bosses (Stay Grounded)
  4. Open up golf courses (Change.org petition)
  5. Rent and work during Coronavirus – a survey (Google Form survey)

Guidance for activists

  1. How to talk about Coronavirus (Uplift, Ireland)
  2. Some more thoughts on framing (Public Interest Research Centre)
  3. Taking action online (350.org)
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Fossil fuels are coming to the UN talks in Glasgow

This is a script for a workshop I wrote for the Fossil Free UK Gathering held in Yorkshire, October 2019.

In 1992 world leaders (mostly men) convened in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Earth Summit.

They signed the first major treaty on global warming, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC requires annual meetings of the countries that have signed the treaty. Each is known as a ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP).

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was signed enshrining the first agreed legal cuts to greenhouse gas emissions under a principal of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ – rich countries agreed legal targets and poorer nations like China and India were exempt. The Kyoto Protocol was due to run until 2012.

World leaders tried and failed to negotiate a replacement for the protocol in Copenhagen in 2009. However in 2015 the ‘Paris Treaty’ was signed acknowledging that 1.5 degrees of warming, not 2 degrees, was the preferred limit of global warming, and inviting all countries to make emissions cuts pledges.

Some countries, most notably the USA, have sought to derail the UNFCCC. Historically the UK has negotiated as part of the EU. Due to Brexit this will change by 2020, when the UK hosts the COP for the first time, in Glasgow. Continue reading

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Diary: Making a safer world for trans people

Content warning: suicide, depression

Earlier this year my friend Danielle Myriam Fisher suicided.

Today is Trans Day of Remembrance, and so I wanted to say a few words to remember her, what her story means to me, and why I think we need to act.

Danielle was a deeply committed activist and contributed hugely to the people and the world around her. I knew her as a student member of People & Planet and her efforts fighting fossil fuels – but it’s become clear to me this was just one small part of the work she took on.
Continue reading

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Visualising UK oil and gas extraction

Oil and gas exploration began in UK waters in 1965. Since that time 44 billion barrels of oil and gas equivalent have been extracted, 7,800 wells have been drilled and the industry’s operations pepper vast regions of the North Sea.

Unlike coal or on-shore renewables, this major industrial activity goes far away from communities and most people’s daily lives. To most people it is invisible. Continue reading

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Boredom, bungles and dodging death: Charles Lander on the Western Front

A destroyed German trench on the Messines Ridge, 1917. More people died in the battlefields around Ypres than were killed by the atomic bomb. Photo: National Library of Scotland.

What was is like to fight in the First World War? It is a question no living person can answer, but we have inherited many stories from the dead.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, kept a diary of his active service. It is a glimpse of the life of a fairly junior officer in a most extraordinary war. There are heroics and horrors – but he also chose to record some of the boredom, the bungles, the friends he made and lost, and perhaps most strikingly, vivid personal reflections on his own mistakes.

Initially rejected from the army because he was too skinny, Charles, a member of the Officers Training Corps at university, left Birmingham for the Army in 1914. He received a year of training before leaving for France in April 1916 where he was to fight in ‘Kitchener’s Army’, the masses of young men of largely ordinary professions who ‘answered the call’. He was proud, yes. But also nervous.

He is courting his fiancee Doris when he is given his orders. At home one weekend on leave he recalls feeling “very peaceful and very much in love” when “a telegram arrived giving us orders to proceed overseas. I must confess that rather a lump developed in my throat and all sorts of fears ran through my mind of what the future had in store for me; whether this was to be my last afternoon in the old house. Fortunately H. Allenby dropped in for tea and sentimentalities were forgotten. The morning came and I said goodbye.” Continue reading

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“I began to feel a little bit shaky”: Charles Lander in the Somme, 100 years ago

We_are_making_a_new_World_(1918)_(Art._IWM_ART_1146) 2

Paul Nash: ‘We Are Making a New World’ (IWM)

100 years ago today began the Battle of the Somme. Few episodes in human history are remembered with such a grand sense of supreme awfulness. But with this grandeur comes distance and incomprehension. As time passes the gulf widens: we need personal stories to bridge it.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, fought in the Somme and recorded his memories in a diary which spanned the whole of the First World War.

A member of the Officer Training Corps when war was declared, Charles would spend 20 months in training before leaving for the Western Front as a junior officer in the British Army.

When he finally did arrive in France in the Spring of 1916 his diary entries are brimming with a sense of fascination and adventure. But as the days go by these stories are increasingly peppered with references to “the coming offensive”. Lengthly preparations are made. He writes, “we handed to the quartermaster letters for home: last letters, which he understood were only to be posted if we were killed.”

It’s 9.30pm on 4th July 1916, and after what must have been an agonising four days in waiting, Charles was given his first order to enter battle. Continue reading

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What Scotland Looks Like Now

After the Referendum: A Gazetteer for Scottish NGOs

For Scottish civil society two weeks ago was day zero of our political calendar. Two weeks later the impact of the referendum campaign and the result is becoming clearer. The result has set the platform for political campaigning in Scotland for years to come. We need to understand what’s happening and be prepared for what’s coming.

With this in mind this is a brief summary of events and analysis, designed to give a big picture of where we stand and where we’re going.

Seven key issues

There are a number of key issues which for the next while will be the top things to consider in Scottish politics:

#1. New loud civil society voices whose direction of travel is no longer clear. Many influential new groups which sprung up during the referendum are continuing, including:

  • Common Weal have had around 1,000 people offer help after the vote, according to one staff member. They are building support for “a network of venues across Scotland; cafe bars where the movement can meet, discuss and organise”; a new social media engine called “CommonSpace” to allow people to “get easy access to the best writing and thinking”; and a “Common Weal Policy Unit to do research, policy development and analysis” (presumably taking this role away from the Jimmy Reid Foundation) which may include a paid lobbyist at the Scottish Parliament. Their “National Council for Scotland” project, which was about gathering varied voices for a Scottish constitution and was supported by various key Yes voices, appears to have been shelved.
  • The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has had huge post-vote support including over 7,000 people expressing interest in their November conference (see Civil society events planned so far), and are set to continue in some form. They still count key activists from the Scottish Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party and International Socialist Group in their leadership. Perhaps related to this they have not agreed to become a new political party, despite murmurings.
  • National Collective, the artists for Yes group, will be continuing “the Yes campaign’s legacy of a politically engaged and educated electorate, regardless of the result.” Full details will come shortly and they’ve been having lots of busy meetings.
  • So Say Scotland, a deliberative democracy project which held events asking people to discuss their priorities for a better Scotland, is continuing. They had previously said that “regardless of the results of the referendum this September, So Say Scotland will continue to build its networks across the country [to make] Scotland a global hub for democratic innovation.”
  • Bella Caledonia, a blog website led by Mike Small, as with Common Weal are planning to expand their blog into a full media website with a full-time editor and “six editorial posts in the following areas: international, community, arts, innovation, social justice and ecology”. They are also planning to create “regular Video News Coverage”, “Citizens Journalism Training”, and a print magazine “Closer”.
  • 45+ is a very loose grouping of Yes voters keen to continue the#3. Forthcoming elections. campaign for independence immediately. They lack support from other major groups but are likely to continue their street campaign and will be putting pressure on the SNP to offer another referendum. The name of the group, among other things, has met criticism (e.g. Rich Shore). Some of their events are collected here.

#2. Huge upsurge in “Yes” party membership.

  • The SNP have had a huge upsurge in membership. With 75,000 members they are now the third largest political party in the UK, far surpassing the Liberal Democrats, and have members of more than 1% of the Scottish population.
  • Scottish Greens have gained 4,000 members in the last two weeks bringing their total membership to over 6,000. Individual branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh now have more members than the entire party had going in to 2014 and they are now the clearly the fourth party in Scotland by membership.
  • Conservatives, UKIP and Labour have made no claims about increased membership. The Lib Dems reported minor increases in membership earlier in the year UK-wide. It’s fair to assume not much has changed for the “no” parties, else they’d be telling us if it had.
  • There is a considerable amount of chatter about the dire state of support for Labour in Scotland, centred around suspicion that Labour voters who voted Yes have been put off by the negative aspects of the Better Together campaign and will fund it hard to vote for Labour in the future. Here’s a hypothesis (Adam Ramsay) and a rebuttal (Mark Ballard) about their prospects for Westminster elections in 2015.

#3. Forthcoming elections. The full impact of these membership and activist upsurges on parliamentary politics will not be clear until the next Scottish Parliament elections (in 2016), where proportional representation will give us a decent idea of how these new members are getting votes. Westminster elections in Spring 2015 are hard to read. Since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 the SNP, Greens and socialists have not used Westminster as a major point of mobilisation. The introduction of new Yes and left wing activists, battle hardened from the referendum campaign, to a Westminster election could be very significant. And then of course there’s the possibility of an EU referendum, promised to us by the Conservatives (and UKIP), who may have some chance of forming a majority in Westminster next year.

#4. The SNP leadership. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, has resigned, and Nicola Sturgeon seems likely to take his place. There will be internal elections including for deputy leader, and there will be much discussion of changes in direction. Stewart Hosie MP and Keith Brown MSP (backed by, amongst others, Humza Yousaf MSP) have announced their candidacy for Deputy Leader. It’s worth noting that if elected Sturgeon would not only be the first woman First Minister, she would make the Lib Dems the only Parliamentary party in Scotland without a woman leader.

#5. The Smith Commission is tasked with triangulating Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem policy on constitutional reform to recommend new powers for the Scottish Parliament before the 2015 UK elections. In the referendum campaign these policies were outlined as including new powers to vary tax and benefit rates and to borrow and today it was suggested that these powers will be fully available by 2017. Civil Society has been invited to contribute to the Smith Commission by the end of October, and groups including NIDOS and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland have suggested they will input. There is considering public scepticism about the process fuelled by UK Government proposals to link the reforms with “English Votes for English Laws” in Westminster (there are a number of constitutional problems this would raise) and things have already gotten messy with Gordon Brown accusing David Cameron of trying to hijack the process. This debate could spurn more serious discussion about federalism in the UK and the creation of a new English Parliament – a “constitutional chain reaction”, as Eve Hepburn puts it – watch this space. The Electoral Reform Society’s “Democracy Max” project may provide some useful ideas.

#6. Iraq War III. David Cameron has admitted he held off a vote about re-invading Iraq until after the referendum vote for fear of jeopardising the result. The bombers have been sent in and we’re told they’re likely to be there for the long haul. This is likely to be a recurring issue for campaigners and could be a major point of mobilisation (see Civil society events planned so far).

#7. Austerity… and another referendum. It seems likely that there will be another referendum on independence within the next decade. A generation has now taken independence seriously, even if they didn’t vote for it, and many will view the events of the years to come through the following lens: “I wonder how things might have been different if we’d gone for yes?” Promises of further cuts by all three big Westminster parties are likely to bolster SNP support and drive the idea that “Scottish politics is different”. As Gerry Hassan says “The British state has bought itself some precious time. If it does not use it wisely, this debate will be back in a decade and Scotland will produce a second referendum rather different from the first.”

If we take the likelihood of another referendum seriously NGOs should start thinking, albeit quietly, about how we want to position ourselves in such a vote. More cautious organisations may reflect on the gains made by the likes of the Scottish Refugee Council and CND who, although didn’t get their preferred outcome, won a lot of public support from their engagement in the debate.

So that’s the political landscape. With all this going on we will have to fight hard to get airtime for TTIP, fracking, UN climate talks, and other thorny Thorn House issues.

Further reading

Some interesting thoughts on related topics from the last two weeks.

Civil society events planned so far

  • Sat 4 Oct, Glasgow
    Stop the War March, Stop the War Coalition
  • Sun 5 Oct, Edinburgh
    Global Justice / Open Space, Edinburgh (World Development Movement, NIDOS, Jubilee Scotland, People & Planet)
  • Tue 7 Oct, Edinburgh
    Post Referendum: A New Scottish Democracy?
  • 30 Sep – 20 Oct, Edinburgh
    Edinburgh World Justice Festival
  • 11-12 Oct, Edinburgh
    Scottish Green Party Conference,. Greens annual meeting in Edinburgh. Conference booking for fringe meetings now open. Branch meetings also happening. “The Scottish Green party reported a parallel surge in membership, with 3,000 supporters joining since Friday.” (Guardian)
  • 23 Oct, Edinburgh
    NIDOS AGM and Annual Conference, “The Path Ahead”, Festival Theatre.
  • 13-15 Nov, Perth
    SNP Conference 13-15 November, Perth. “More than 18,000 people joined the party since Thursday, lifting its overall membership to a record level of 43,644.” (Guardian)
  • 20 Nov, Glasgow
    Third Sector Summit,. SCVO.
  • 22 Nov, Glasgow
    Radical Independence third annual conference,. Venue tbc due to level of interest. Over 7,000 people planning to attend on facebook! Also meeting regularly in local branches.
  • 23 Nov, Edinburgh
    Activist Skills Share with the World Development Movement, People & Planet, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Jubilee Scotland and friends.
  • Lots of local meetings for post-Yes/”We are the 45” groups (see here)

Ric Lander
askriclander@gmail.com
www.riclander.wordpress.com

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7 Pillars of Awesome Events

Following a series of well received workshops on event planning for community groups (People & Planet Scotland Gathering, 2011; Strathclyde Sustainable Futures, 2012; Edinburgh Do, 2013) I’ve written up my golden rules for activist event planning for download.

If you know someone who’s involved in community organising they should find it easy to use and useful for many purposes.

You can read it now on my website:

The document is also available as a printable PDF handout.

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